Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Muslims in baseball and a past post

Way back in July 2007, I wrote a post on Sam Khalifa. Khalifa is the only Muslim to ever play professional baseball at the Major League level. Unfortunately, lack of ability cut short Khalifa's career at the big league level.

The death of his father to Islamic extremists cut short his career in baseball.

Recently, there have been a few more articles written about Sam Khalifa. In December of 2012, the trial began for the man accused of murdering Khalifa's father while Khalifa worked as a cabbie in Tucson, in March it was reported that he finally got back into baseball as a coach for his high school alma mater, and last week, Fangraphs.com writer Alex Remington asked why there haven't been more Muslims in baseball.

In my post, I asked what would have happened if he stayed in baseball. I wondered if he would have been an ambassador for the game in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001 and if Khalifa could have eased tensions between eastern and western culture.

Admittedly, that is a lot to ask of anyone. But perhaps, if he decides to get back into baseball, Khalifa could maybe one day find a spot as a coach for a World Baseball Tournament team and become if not a cultural ambassador, at least a baseball ambassador at the national level.

Personally, it is hard to believe I have been blogging for over six years. And not only do I remember when I write something like that, but I still take interest in the subject I wrote about long ago.

That's an interesting feeling.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Our Mortal Moment with Manny

For a brief moment in 2011, Manuel Aristides “Manny” Ramirez donned a Rays uniform. On January 31st of that year, while most players had long earlier known what uniform would be on their back, Manny signed a 1-year deal with the Rays for a hair over two million dollars.

During that spring, the Rays spoke highly of Manny. He was motivated. He was dedicated.

He was also using performance-enhancing drugs. At least that’s what the tests said.

Manny Ramirez “retired” from baseball a week into the 2011 regular season, having only played five games and getting only one hit in seventeen at-bats for the Rays. He walked away from the game a disgraced shell of the powerful slugger he was in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox. On the positive side for the Rays, Manny’s retirement only cost them $87,000 of his two million dollar salary.

But Manny Ramirez wasn’t happy. He knew he could still play and felt he could still contribute to a Major League team. He wasn’t about to be Rafael Palmiero or Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds – players forced out of baseball after solid seasons, untouchable and undesirable due to the plague of steroid accusations.

After sitting out the rest of 2011, Manny’s suspension was reduced to 50 games. On February 20th 2012, Manny signed a minor-league deal with the Oakland A’s, hoping to get back to the big leagues one more time. Manny played seventeen games for the A’s top minor league team, hitting .307. Despite the positive batting average and solid on-base percentage, the A’s released Manny on June 15th, 2012 after he asked for his release following the team’s claim they had no upcoming plans to promote him to the majors.

Despite the setback, Manny again thought he could still play. He wasn’t about to retire on someone else’s terms. He wanted another chance.

Manny’s next chance came from one of the most unlikely sources in recorded baseball history – the Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League. No one goes to the Taiwan. They go to Japan, like Cecil Fielder, Tuffy Rhodes, or Rays broadcaster Orestes Destrade did, where the competition is comparable to a top American minor league. They don’t go to Taiwan.

But Manny being Manny, as Manny always has been, did. And he succeeded. Stories were written about how Manny not only helped himself, but also helped the league, adding attention and respectability to the formerly troubled league. While he hit .352 with a .422 on-base percentage and a .555 slugging percentage in 49 games with the EDA Rhinos, attendance in the league soared and people came out in droves to see the former American star.

Still, Manny wanted to play in the Majors. To one day leave the game on his terms. Not after suspension and not after a 1-for-17 endnote. In June 2013, Manny opted out of his contract with the Rhinos and on July 3rd, he signed another minor league contract, this time with the Texas Rangers.

And that brings us to this week.

On August 14th, after 30 games with the Round Rock Express, the Rangers’ top minor league team, Manny Ramirez was released. Like the A’s a year earlier, the Rangers stated they had no place for Manny at the big league level. According to ESPN, although Manny hit three home runs in his first eight games with the Express, scouts now say “his bat speed has slowed down considerably”.

Although he is fighting Father Time at 41 years old, Manny says he will not retire and if he doesn’t sign with another team this season, he is looking forward to playing in the Dominican League this winter. The idea of playing in the Dominican League as a stepping stone back to the major is not without precedent. Former American League MVP Miguel Tejada signed with the Kansas City Royals after impressing with the Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Republic Winter League following his release in early 2012 by the Baltimore Orioles.

Given what he has done to stay in the game, I doubt Manny Ramirez wants to leave the game like this. Manny seems to still want to leave the game on his terms. Some athletes have that chance. Some don’t. Some, like Willie Mays, fall down in the outfield, victims of the “helpless hurt” of age. Manny never was one for the field as the “Say Hey Kid” was, but if Manny’s once immortal bat is indeed less than mortal, he can’t possibly help a Major League team.

Even without performance-enhancing drugs, Manny Ramirez was better than the 1-for-17 he did with the Rays. He knows that. Any self-respecting baseball fan knows that.

Every player wants to go out like Ted Williams, to hit a home run in his final at-bat. Most hope to not go out like Babe Ruth, who hit a measly .181 while used as an attendance gimmick for 28 games for the 1935 Boston Braves, a team that won only 38 games and lost 115.

As Rays fans, we can harp on Manny’s brief time in the organization, dismissing him as a fraud, but living with the fact that had Manny stayed we would not have the season-long phenomenon known as Casey Kotchman’s “Magic of Kotch”. Manny’s loss was in fact the Rays’ gain. For the statistically minded, Kotchman had 3.7 Wins Over Replacement in 2011, an overall measurement of performance Ramirez came close to during his short stint with the Dodgers in 2009, but last achieved over the course of a whole season in 2006.

(Perhaps in an alternate universe, Manny Ramirez pees clean and Kotchman spends all of 2011 in Durham. Perhaps then it is Kotchman, not Dan Johnson, who is called up in late September. And perhaps Johnson never gets to hit the second most exciting home run in the final regular season game of that season.)

Or if Manny Ramirez is in fact done, if his bat speed just isn’t up to par, and if no team wants to take a chance on a mortal 41-year old designated hitter who hasn’t succeeded against Major League pitching in three years, then for a brief moment we, the fans of the Tampa Bay Rays, had the privilege of seeing the end of a great, albeit sometimes controversial, career.